Birmingham superintendent apologizes for African American history class

Birmingham, Michigan

A column that appeared in Bridge Magazine last week objected to the use of R-rated fictional movies that were to be studied in the African American history class at Groves High in Birmingham. On Thursday, the superintendent of Birmingham Public Schools wrote that the syllabus “should never have reached our students’ desks.”

Update: I am the Michigan teacher removed from teaching African-American history

The superintendent of Birmingham Public Schools apologized to parents last week, saying the district “failed” students with a black history class whose syllabus initially included the film “Boyz ‘N the Hood.”

Mark Dziatczak, who was hired in December as superintendent, wrote an email to district parents on Thursday, two days after Bridge Magazine published a first-person column about the class at Groves High School.

Read the original article: Opinion | How Michigan fails kids in black history

Letter from Birmingham Public Schools superintendent

The pilot class’ syllabus also had included “Do the Right Thing,” another R-rated fictional movie, as a potential study topic before the teacher and syllabus were changed in December following parents’ complaints.

“We recognize that the resources listed in the course pilot syllabus failed to meet the depth and breadth of African American history,” Dziatczak wrote to parents.

“The syllabus that was distributed to students in our African American History course pilot should never have reached our students’ desks.”

African American history is an elective pilot course that is taught at Groves High for students from both Groves and the district’s other high school, Seaholm.

Birmingham Public Schools superintendent Dziatczak

Mark Dziatczak, superintendent of Birmingham Public Schools, wrote in a letter to parents on Thursday that moving forward officials will seek input from students, parents and staff on pilot courses like an African-American history class.

The syllabus, which also included readings about or by Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and others, drew complaints for its planned study topics since the civil rights movement.

Beyond those movies, the class also planned to study a documentary about the Bloods and Crips gangs and readings about mass incarceration.

The Bridge Magazine article noted that the complaints about Birmingham come as scholars debate how best to teach African American history and whether focusing solely on oppression boosts the myth of white superiority.

The article implored schools to “do better,” and take the instruction of African American history more seriously, noting that test scores for Michigan fifth-graders in social studies –  which includes history – were the worst among all subjects, with less than a third of students showing proficiency.

“After reading the article several times, among many things, I regret that our actions and systems led to the desire for it to be written,” wrote Dziatczak, who started at Birmingham after the class was changed.

“It is clear that the District failed its obligation to provide an African American History course pilot that was both appropriate for our students and reflected the necessary input from our community, including the voices of many students, parents, teachers and administrators.”

Bridge Magazine offered district officials an opportunity to write a guest commentary about the class before the initial article was published. Bridge repeated the offer on Friday, when district officials also declined to comment about the situation beyond Dziatczak’s letter.

In the email to parents, Dziatczak wrote that, in the short term, school administrators have “changed processes regarding the launch of pilot courses to provide much greater due diligence during the development phase while also requiring input from students, parents, staff and key administrators following the completion of the pilot period.”

“I understand the frustration and the concerns expressed by the author, parents and students,” Dziatczak said in the letter to parents.

“I understand fully that we are only as good as our last instance of injustice,” he wrote.

“Therefore, we must ensure that all voices are included and valued in the District’s continuous improvement process. I am fully confident that by collaborating with so many fine educators and community members of Birmingham Public Schools, we will deliver on the promise of providing an exceptional educational experience for ALL students.”

Arthur Jack, leader of the Birmingham African-American Family Network, a group that advocates to reduce the achievement gap between white and black students, said he thinks the superintendent means well, but the letter is too little, too late.

“The third trimester is coming soon and our parents haven't met with (district) administrators yet. We want to help with the solution by creating an enriching and enlightening Black History learning experience for ALL students taking the course in the future,”  Jack wrote in an email to Bridge in response to requests for comment.

“At this rate, I have little to no confidence that we will have an acceptable course in the fall,” Jack wrote.

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William R. Boyer
Wed, 02/27/2019 - 6:48pm

Looks like the new Birmingham superintendent Mr. Dziatczak and the Bridge reporter Ms. Dawsey made no effort to explore the teacher’s point of view or any students’ reaction to the elective African American studies course. As a veteran social studies teacher and as someone who grew up in Birmingham (and its public schools), such reactionary politics sounds sadly familiar and horribly dated. The knee-jerk condemnation of two award-winning films by African American directors sounds more like a MAGA plea for sanitized history. Why not at least consider how such cultural artifacts can elevate open dialogue with vital, yet uncomfortable topics, such as systemic racism, the new Jim Crow and Black Lives Matter? Why didn’t Bridge bother to even suggest another side to a story about thinly-veiled censorship? Here’s another lost opportunity for truly transformative pedagogy, where district leadership probably quickly caved into complaints by one or two parents. Betsy DeVos would surely enjoy whitewashing civil rights history, particularly anything related to current events, yet why would Bridge merely echo a neo-conservatism as old as the town itself?

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 9:17pm

I am a parent of a student at Seaholm High School. I have seen the video and I as a black man take offense with the people which includes Chastity Pratt Dawsey who child does not goes to Seaholm sensationalizing this. As far as Arthur Jack, leader of the Birmingham African-American Family Network I think they are a disgrace, there are bigger fish to fry that they avoid.

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 11:43pm

It seems like this administrator knows how to secure or protect his new job but not how to educate.

Jamon Jordan
Wed, 03/27/2019 - 6:22pm

Does the school or teacher use “The Godfather,” in US history class?

Do they have the students watch “Sopranos” or “Goodfellas,” in those classes?

And if they did, would we be surprised that parents, especially Italian-American parents would be highly upset about that being part of the lessons??

But anything goes with Black History classes.

Crips and Bloods.
Boyz N the Hood.
Menace II Society.

The “ghettoizing” of Black history is indicative of the inherent white supremacy and Euro-normative ethos within schools, especially suburban districts.

And That problem cannot be solved by removing a teacher or changing a syllabus. It can only be changed by educators, parents, students and administrators becoming activists against the educational inequality that is perpetrated and perpetuated by the problematic and Eurocentric educational system.